Plains pipeline sentenced to pay $3 million in Refugio oil spill criminal case

A Texas oil pipeline company was sentenced Thursday for crimes it committed related to a 2015 oil spill that coated Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara County and killed hundreds of birds and marine mammals.

Plains All American said in a statement to The Tribune that it was ordered to pay $3.35 million for nine criminal counts related to the Refugio oil spill off the Santa Barbara coast, a punishment that the $17 billion company said wouldn’t hurt its bottom line and that environmental groups criticized as too light.

It was handed down by Santa Barbara Superior Court Judge James Herman.

“Plains’ criminal negligence deserved a tougher sentence, but even more important is that the company doesn’t deserve another chance to spill again,” said Blake Kopcho with the Center for Biological Diversity.

His organization is fighting the company’s attempt to build a new pipeline to replace the one that corroded and allowed thousands of gallons of crude oil to leak onto the shore and into the Pacific Ocean. The new pipeline would replace the section that leaked, along with the rest of the 124 mile of pipe that run through Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Kern counties.

Read more of The Tribune’s coverage of that pipeline here.

Plains said the fines won’t impact its financial position

The oil spill near Refugio State Beach in May 2015 shut down the pipeline and associated offshore oil rigs, and triggered multiple investigations that resulted in reports, a new law requiring safety updates to pipelines, and criminal charges.

The California Attorney General’s Office and Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office investigated the incident. As a result of their findings, Plains and one employee were indicted by a state grand jury for a total of 46 criminal counts. Most of the charges against the company and all of those against an employee were dismissed. The company went to trial in May 2018 on 15 charges.

A jury in September 2018 found Plains guilty of one felony count for discharging crude oil into state waters and eight misdemeanors for failure to report the spill and causing the deaths of sea lions and brown pelicans.

After the verdict, Plains told investors in its 2018 annual report that “we do not anticipate that the fines or penalties imposed as a result of the jury’s decision will have a material adverse impact on the financial position or operations of the (company).”

Plains All American has publicly apologized for the spill, which the company estimates leaked 2,934 barrels of crude oil, of which 598 reached the ocean.

“We take our responsibility to safely deliver energy resources very seriously, and we are committed to doing the right thing. We are sorry that this release happened, and we have and will continue to work hard to re-earn the trust of area residents,” Brad Leone, director of communications and government relations, said in a prepared statement emailed to The Tribune.

oil spill refugio beach.jpg
An oil spill in May 2015 covered parts of Refugio State Beach and killed marine mammals and sea birds when the Plains All American Pipeline ruptured and 142,000 gallons of crude spilled into the ocean. Courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard

‘Tremendous damage’ to California coast

During the sentencing hearing, the judge heard from victims of the company’s crimes, including neighbors, fishermen and workers.

Linda Krop, an attorney with the Environmental Defense Center testified in the criminal sentencing hearing on behalf of environment interests. She provided a copy of her testimony to The Tribune.

It reads, in part, “The Plains oil spill caused tremendous damage to much of the California coast, spreading all the way from Refugio State Beach Park to beaches more than 150 miles away in Orange County. The spill killed hundreds of marine mammals, fish, birds, and other wildlife, and destroyed sensitive habitats both onshore and offshore.”

She said the spill had a devastating impact on the environment and that subsequent investigations found that the response and cleanup actions were inadequate.

“We will never know the full extent of the damage because it is impossible to clean up an offshore oil spill. What we do know is that the effects will be long-lasting and will never be fully mitigated,” Krop said.

The spill has cost the company far more than Thursday’s fine. It was estimated that Plains had spent at least $150 million on cleanup by 2016, according to reporting by Reuters.

Multiple claims and lawsuits were filed against the company after the spill, and more may be coming, according to public company documents.

A sea lion covered in oil struggles on the beach just west of Refugio State Beach, about 100 feet from where the oil spill flowed into the ocean in Santa Barbara County. Bethany Mollenkof Los Angeles Times/TNS
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Monica Vaughan reports on health, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo County, oil and wildlife at The Tribune. She previously covered crime and justice in the Sacramento Valley, is a graduate of the University of Oregon journalism school and is a sixth-generation Californian. Have an idea for a story? Email: mvaughan@thetribunenews.com